In Cult X, Shotaro Matsuo leads a benign group of followers in a revisionist Buddhism that incorporates psychics and neurology. Sawatari, who had studied with him under the teacher Suzuki, was the leader of the mysterious Cult X. Sawatari gains devotion by selecting followers who hate themselves because they are alienated from society and in turn hate society. The cult’s rituals include a celebration of sex which have women given some agency, but it’s only the agency I think a man imagines a woman would want to have. Sawatari had a more private ritual involving new women to the cult in which he rapes them (completely disturbing) and they come to enjoy it (completely unlikely).
While Matsuo, who himself sexually harasses women, seems to see Cult X as an irritant similar to a fly in a room, Cult X is secretive, with members living in an apartment house, and they send spies and scouts into Tokyo. They do have an enemy in Tokyo authorities, but the Public Safety Bureau and the police are distrustful of each other and are working at cross purposes. Cult X also has an enemy within who threatens to destabilize their entire organization.
Cult X is one of the strangest books I’ve read and not really in a good way. I don’t mind explicit sex scenes in books, but I do mind sexual violence which was not only present in this book but gratuitously so. The action of women was solely in response to men, and their jealous fighting over the men they desired reflected male fantasies more than reality.
Several of Mastuo’s “lectures” are transcribed in the novel, and he has wackadoodle theories about Buddha anticipating such advances as string theory. He spoke about the unity of people and the planet through the exchange of atoms, and promoted peace. I’m not sure I understood even some of his discourse but it was interesting.
Also intriguing was the comparison between cults and the government and how the government fosters a cult-like belief in itself through nationalism using at one point the example of the near worship of the Yasukuni Shrine and the promise that Japanese soldiers falling in war are decreed heroes. In Cult X, a conservative government manipulates the belief to consolidate power which sounds very familiar to an American audience.
Although I’ve read about some American cults, particularly the People’s Temple and the Manson Family, after reading this book, I realize I haven’t read about cults in general, so I don’t know how accurate the book is in representing the pull of cults and the way leaders manipulate vulnerable believers. That question, of course, is incredibly interesting, but in Cult X, it seemed to be treated somewhat superficially with everyone joining Cult X having a difficult past that caused them to become estranged from society and so looking for a place to belong. It only gave cursory attention to what would cause them to take the extreme step of pledging their lives to the leader, and in some instances, suggesting that the appeal of sex was enough.
Both Matsuo and Sawatari talked in detail about World War II or the Pacific War as they called it, and I wasn’t sure of the significance of this in the context of the novel. I wondered if there were cultural touchstones that I was just missing being a Westerner reading the book.
Though there are some interesting themes in Cult X, many key characters are jealous, petty, and cruel. Getting through Matsuo’s lectures requires patience, and reading about Sawatari and his Cult X necessitates a strong stomach. I think it will appeal to a very narrow swath of readers.